What I learnt from designing @AltSchool

I recently purchased a New Yorker subscription on impulse (go Labor Day discounts!) and downloaded the digital app — NYer Today. When I logged in, the screen made me choose between 3 things: logging in via my New Yorker Subscription, or via my Apple Subscription, or to Link my Subscription. What was the difference between these options? I didn’t care, I just want to log in. (I wish I took a screenshot of it, but I was slightly tipsy on Horchata rum and forgot.)

The replacement of the monocle with the phone in the logo is a nice touch though! (PC: New Yorker)

As a user, I didn’t care about which account I used to subscribe, I only cared about being able to log in with the email I registered with minutes ago when I purchased my subscription. On the other hand, the engineers and product people might care, since logging in via each of these routes would have required different technical infrastructures. In those few moments, I experienced a jarring user experience, one that imposed a systems-level model on me, instead of one that followed and matched how I thought.

What has New Yorker gotta do with AltSchool?

This brief experience reminded me of what I learnt this summer, as an intern on AltSchool’s incredible design team. Over the past 3 months, I dove deep into the fascinating field of designing technology for K-12 education in the 21st century. In the process, I have learnt a lot about designing for educators, both opportunities and pitfalls.

I hope by sharing my stories, experiences and takeaways, someone else who might be new in designing for education can find themselves, if anything, slightly more prepared.

The beautiful collision of schools and product teams

A little bit of context behind AltSchool if you’re unfamiliar: AltSchool currently runs 7 lab schools across K-8 in San Francisco, New York, Palo Alto and Chicago, and is building a technology platform and pedagogical model toward the ultimate aim of personalized, whole-child learning for every child.

AltSchool HQ: The vantage point where I see both tech (pictured here), and lab school (behind the staircase)

As far as I know, AltSchool is the only place that is both a lab school and a technology company, and from that angle AltSchool provides a unique vantage point to look at building technology for education. There are as many product, engineering and design folks as there are educators, and the SOMA houses both a middle school and the HQ where product folks like me hang out. Being in such an environment where there is consistent interaction between product and school is quite the dream for any human-centered designer, myself included.

When I was there, AltSchool’s products primarily focused on equipping educators with the tools to help them be their excellent selves, deliver both core and project-based curricula, and help students achieve their personally-set goals. Therefore, the primary users I saw the product and design team working with are educators themselves (rather than students or parents), and I will focus the remaining conversation on what I learnt building technology for educators.

In my first month I was paired up with an Educator buddy, and I got to shadow multiple summer classes. Educators come hang out at the weekly Happy Hour, and are part of the company’s general Slack channel along with everybody else. The nice thing about AltEducators are that they are extremely willing to help shape designs and products, and at any stage of the process, we are able to observe, interview and test designs with them.

Having unparalleled access to educators has allowed me and the team to build empathy on a much deeper level, throughout my project, to iteratively build designs together.

Lesson #1 — It is soooo easy to get caught up in existing frameworks

The New Yorker experience reminded me of my project at AltSchool, because I found myself prone to committing similar errors of prioritizing systems models rather than the ways teachers might think.

Over the past 3 years, AltSchool has established an underlying mental and technical framework to support different classroom activities and educator actions. That had served well for the actions like unit planning and task management, but the specific action I was designing for, documenting emergent learning in the classroom, turned out not to really fit into the existing framework.

When I designed a few user flows that attempted to piggyback off the existing framework, the designs fell flat. The educators will successfully complete the tasks, but their experiences were not satisfying.

I saw many a furrowed eyebrow as they clicked through the prototypes and experienced the same dissonance I did that came with getting caught up in the technology — prioritizing systems thinking versus user mental models.

After working through some mental model mapping exercises with them, I understood what they were picturing in their head, and it certainly was not what we intended to build.

What struck me was how easy it was to be stuck within the existing frames we create for ourselves. Why was it so?

  1. These frames have been tried and tested across multiple product iterations, and have confidence baked in them.
  2. Breaking out of or expanding these existing systems would require significant engineering effort — Newton’s 1st Law of Inertia kicks in!
  3. We had not explicitly and visibly articulated this was the particular framework we were using in the first place, making changing it even harder.
Consequently, the amount of research and level of confidence it takes to overcome the inertia has to be very high, perhaps at a level that may not be matched by the amount of resources we have.

Balancing both systems and user needs is hard for any company, and understandably so.

I could imagine the same inertia applying to many products, but the inertia might be particularly high for products in the education space. In consumer products like Facebook or Snapchat, the cost of the friction caused by mental model discrepancies is particularly high, given the large audience base and the diversity of other options users can switch to should an experience be unsatisfactory.

In education products, which are more similar to enterprise products (since educators tend to behave more like expert users), users might tolerate a suboptimal user experience more — since an educator is already familiar with the existing system, and there are fewer substitutes available to switch out to.

At AltSchool, we soon realized that there were other new products within our suite that faced the same conflict between user and systems models. My incredible mentor Alex (and lead engineer, also an Alex) realized this trend and led the creation of a new framework that supports the mental models of educators much better. I used our new framework, this time focusing on truly matching how educators thought, to design a series of new flows that made completing the task way simpler, and ideally, more delightful.

Ultimately, it is moments like these, and amazing people like these, that we are designing for.

Of course, not all bad user experiences are due to this prioritization of systems models vs user ones, and not all such instances are best solved with overhauling existing frameworks. But in the case that it is, overcoming it might take a few things.

First, being able to identify the differences between user and technical models and articulating them clearly through visuals or storytelling — accurately diagnosing the problem before solving it — is likely a good first step.

Next, as a designer, one also has to remain remarkably faithful to an excellent user experience, and continuously advocate for that in a room where other priorities like optimizing engineering time exists, through powerful storytelling and communication.

These were some things I definitely could have done better during my internship, but they are valuable lessons I carry forward with me. Lastly, for all you know, working creatively within the constraints of existing systems might yield even more interesting solutions!

Lesson #2— Educators are great hackers and designers too

Learning to prioritize users was an important takeaway, and interacting with the educators gave me another deeper level of insight about designing for education — educators are also fellow hackers, experimenters and designers.

One of my favorite moments this summer was talking to one of our upper elementary educators about documenting student work in the classroom. She shared with me the various workflows she had established in the classroom involving both online and offline tools. She showed me the various pages of a scaffolded journal to help her students reflect on their progress throughout, and showed me her one of her more successful project-based learning units on building tiny houses.

An educator’s resources and materials ‘hacked’ together quick and easy. Old-school but it works!

While I did not inquire further, reflecting on it in hindsight, her use of these pen and paper tools rather than the existing digital tools AltSchool in these particular cases might reflect her preference for the speed pen and paper brings.

These scaffolds for her students’ learnings are quickly created and pushed out, rough and scrappy, and it is so much easier to iterate on them on paper, just as it is easier for us as designers to iterate on our prototypes on paper.

Similarly, other teachers wisely used existing ‘quick and easy’ tools for their teaching purposes, e.g. One teacher would use Excel sheets to track student goals, another would use Google Drive as a means to share photos and communicate with parents.

In hacking together these tools to serve their students needs, the educators put the same creative and experimental spirits they bring to the classroom to designing the tools they use themselves.

Besides viewing these ‘hacks’ as expressions of unmet latent needs, I find it helpful to view educators themselves as fellow hackers and co-designers.

Actionably, involving them in early stages of the design processes through methods like participatory design can tap into that natural creativity educators possess. Alternatively, could we design tools that actively involve educators as designers, without putting unnecessary time commitment in their busy lives?

Back to school myself — now what?

I’ve got to admit that being at AltSchool was an incredible privilege because I could essentially hop next door and talk to educators at anytime, and the design and product teams understand and truly do their best to put the user experience first.

Many designers do not get to work in such privileged conditions, and being human-centered when there’s so many barriers toward doing so is difficult. I know — I’ve been there have skimped on the process many times in school.

But each time I have done so, I learnt that the amount of energy it takes up front to build a human-centered approach more than makes up the energy it saves banging my head after and wondering why a product didn’t work out the way I intended.

Going back to school for my senior year, I will return to small and scrappy teams without a wealth of resources behind me, or educators right next door. But I have learnt through the internship that building relationships with educators, and involving them early, is not difficult if one goes in with similar intentions to help their students learn better.

gotta be young scrappy and hungry like my homie Hamilton (PC: Creative Goods Merchandise)

Keeping in mind that educators are experimenters and designers as well, I hope to integrate educators more deeply into my next design sprint. (I’m writing this here to keep myself accountable.) And while small and scrappy teams hardly run into issues like system vs. user mental model discrepancies, the lessons I’ve learnt around deeply understanding a user’s frame of mind, and communicating their needs across cross-functional teams is something I take forward to me wherever I go.

Thank you AltSchool an amazing summer it has been learning about design, product, and technology for education. It has been at once fulfilling, challenging, and exciting, and I couldn’t have asked for a better summer!

If you are a fellow student or designer who is interested to chat about designing for education and educators, and what you’ve learnt, I am so curious to listen to your thoughts too — let’s chat!